Among four Zatoichi movies released in 1964, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight introduced several motifs that would be recycled throughout the long-running series. Blind swordsman, gambler and masseur Zatoichi (Shintarô Katsu) nobly offers his palanquin to a young woman travelling with her baby, but is horrified when a gang of hired killers murder her in his stead. Ridden with guilt, Ichi vows to deliver the infant to its daddy in the Miyagi prefecture. He soon has his hands full, juggling dirty diapers and late night bottle feeds whilst eluding his enemies. At one point Ichi pays a prostitute to babysit so he can get at least one night’s sleep, only to lay awake fretting over his beloved boy. A lady pickpocket named Ko (Hizuru Takachiho) enters Ichi’s life and together this trio of misfits become a makeshift family.
There is a long cinematic tradition of comic characters saddled with cute kids, running from Charlie Chaplin to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Bob Hope to Jerry Lewis. Hence the tragicomic tone of Fight, Zatoichi, Fight is a little closer to that sub-genre mix of slapstick and sentimentality than the traditional chanbara movie. Despite that title, the action is sporadic and the pacing sedate as the film proves foremost a character-driven comedy of manners, emphasising some nicely detailed, amusingly played episodes. For example, Ichi’s heartfelt monologue is interrupted when a stream of baby pee hits his face. There is also a particularly funny scene where the blind swordsman repeatedly yells “shh!” in the midst of a fight, so the baby can sleep, even when one luckless opponent yelps out in pain. Scenes like these may strain the patience of hardened action fans, but the Zatoichi series always had more on its mind than simply swordplay.
The heart of the film lies with emotions stirred in wandering misfits Ichi and Ko, who find themselves torn between surrendering the child to his father or keeping him to star a new life together. Ko is very willing to give up her thieving ways and although Ichi at first seems more pragmatic by comparison, beneath the stoic facade he struggles just as hard to do right by the adorable tyke. Things move more complicated once the pair discover father, Master Unosuke (Nobuo Kaneko) is a real jerk who denies the baby is his since he is about to marry into a prominent yakuza family. Ko is fine with that. This means they can keep the baby. But Ichi worries what sort of a life the child would have, on the run with a couple of fugitives. Series star Shintarô Katsu puts in another terrific tragicomic performance, in one scene memorably moved to tears whilst singing a lullaby. Katsu had a fine singing voice and, away from the movies, enjoyed success in a parallel career as a pop crooner. Co-star Hizuru Takachiko proves a great foil for the blind swordsman.
Inevitably the dastardly Unosuke teams with Ichi’s ardent pursuers who have concocted a plan to finally take down the indestructible sword hero. The finale, where Ichi is ambushed by dozens of killers brandishing flaming torches is a striking and suspenseful set-piece while the closing scene has an air of zen-like poetry. The film is beautifully shot in the radiant hues that characterised Kenji Misumi’s more surreal Lone Wolf and Cub movies (1972), a more infamous pairing of cute tyke and stoic samurai. Misumi had a strong working relationship with Katsu, having made both the original Tale of Zatoichi (1962) and five sequels as well as lavish historical epic, Buddha (1961). When Katsu formed his own production company - incidentally, among the most innovative in Japanese cinema - he brought Misumi on board as director of the first three Lone Wolf and Cub films starring his elder brother Tomisaburo Wakayama and the outrageous Hanzo the Razor (1972). In his lifetime Misumi was considered a consummate professional when it came to action movies, but sorely underrated as an artist. He died in 1975, aged 54, with The Last Samurai (1977), the film widely considered his masterpiece, released posthumously.